Tunisia: End of the Historic Compromise?

Has Beji Caid Essebsi decided to extricate himself from the political crisis which plagues his party and paralyses the executive by reverting to his original plan: weaken Ennahda without forcing it to join the opposition and rule unopposed over a country which he claims is threatened by Islamists of every shade?

BCE, interview (Watania 1 channel), September 2017.

Emanuel Macron’s speech at the last Francophone summit1, praising President Essebsi’s courage in the struggle against the rise of obscurantism and the space which the Emirati and Saudi media gave his 24 September speech2 in which he stressed the importance of “breaking” with Ennahda, both argue in favour of the choice of a new political strategy. This would mean abandoning the highly touted “historical compromise” which had become the trademark of the Tunisian transition as well as the notion of shared power in favour of one which would hark back to the days of Bourguiba, when an “enlightened” Tunisia was portrayed in a relentless struggle against Islamism, perceived as tantamount to obscurantism.

The timing of this turnabout is not insignificant since Ennahda, which had made a substantial recovery after the local elections last May, is in bad shape today because of the progress made in the investigation into the murders in 2013 of two left-wing politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. The chief of State will no doubt seize the opportunity – even though no link has yet been formally established between Ennahda and those murders – to blacklist an opponent who was once his ally.

But by catering, consciously or not, to the Emiratis and the Saudis with this ostensibly “modernist” choice, Beji Caid Essebsi is inviting the Gulf countries to interfere in Tunisian politics. It is a way of speeding up his rehabilitation as to his practices, his personnel and his struggle against the so-called “historical” enemy.

Between March 2011 and the present day, Beji Caid Essebsi will thus have led his country from an exemplary revolution to a “protectorate” exercised by the Gulf countries. This is certainly not what Tunisians expected from this transition which has become singular to say the least.

The Unholy Alliance

In 2012, when Beji Caid Essebsi founded Nidaa Tounes, his objective was clearly stated. He meant to unite around his person all those who wished to defend Habib Bourguiba’s modernising legacy which he felt was threatened by Ennahda’s Islamist program. He also intended to restore the State’s power to protect its citizens. This was reassuring for many Tunisians who deplored the governance of the Troika (2011-2013) but was questioned by those who wondered how it was possible to build a post-revolutionary Tunisia on a revival of the politics of the past.

But no matter, Caid Essebsi defined his party in terms of two actions which he considers successful: Bourguiba’s modernising process, in which he personally participated as a minister, and his own role as Prime Minister in the political transition of 2011. On the strength of these antecedents, he claims to be the saviour of Tunisia, a bulwark against Ennahda’s hegemony in the political life of the country. By insisting that democracy is not limited to organising elections, that the capacity to govern is just as important, he tried to discredit the three parties that won the 2011 election.

Nidaa Tounes has grown by incorporating successive waves of malcontents and has no clear program. The heterogeneous composition of its membership prevents it from elaborating a program capable of satisfying at one and the same time the former cadres and supporters of the Democratic Constitutional Rally, leftists allergic to Islamism and Arab nationalists. Yet all are sensitive to the fact that Caid Essebsi is a firm opponent of Ennahda, determined to stop its progress and at the same time restore the grandeur of the State.

The political crisis of 2013 was to give Beji Caid Essebsi his chance: henceforth he had no need of a program. Outraged by the Ali Larayedh government’s poor management, a part of the society voiced its distrust of the political class as a whole and especially of Ennahda, deemed responsible for the climate of insecurity. The murders of two left-wing leaders, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi exacerbated tensions even more. Encouraged by the Egyptian movement Tamarrod (rebellion) opposed to the Presidency of Mohamed Morsi, Tunisians launched a movement of the same name, demanding the government’s resignation. But Larayedh refused to step down, arguing his electoral legitimacy. The stalemate was complete; the government could not perform its tasks and the drafting of the Constitution was paralysed by endless ideological debates. While four institutions suggested ending the crisis by reviving the national dialogue initiated by the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), Beji Caid Essebsi offered to meet with Rached Ghannouchi in order to end the crisis by tempering the intransigent stands of the cadres and activists of their respective formations.

A Skewed Pact

The rapprochement was agreed upon and the notion of consensual governance made it possible to break the stalemate and get the transition back on track. Ennahda suffered from a series of handicaps, due in particular to its poor political management and it was very much in its interest to enter into the pact offered by the leader of Nidaa Tounes. Rached Ghannouchi knew full well that Islamist parties influenced by the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood were not in favour in the region as was evinced by the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and the ostracism of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

So it was Ennahda’s vulnerability that induced its historic leader to embark his party in the transition alongside Beji Caid Essebsi. He did all he could to persuade his cadres and activists that it was necessary for Ennahda to join in the political process and that only Beji Caid Essebsi was in a position to protect their party in these times of turmoil. But this “protection” had a price: Ennahda would have to make concessions to avoid reverting to the days when it was outlawed and persecuted. This implicit deal was not at all to the liking of some of the membership who wondered just how far the need to compromise would take them, considering the completely unequal nature of this relationship. They were bitterly aware that their party was in no way a partner of Nidaa Tounes on the basis of a negotiated program but that the country’s politics were being dictated to them by Beji Caid Essebsi. Over and beyond the political cost of this renouncement, the movement’s sympathizers felt that their party no longer defended a specific project, different from that of Nidaa Tounes.3

It was hard for Rached Ghannouchi to explain to his rank and file that the party he had been leading since 1981 had to achieve respectability in order to survive, had to gradually become a civic party without abandoning the Islamic reference, had to turn the page on political Islam and become “Muslim democrat” the way Europe had had Christian democratic parties.

Beji Caïd Essebsi Dropped by His Own Kind

Nidaa Tounes was consumed by infighting between rival ambitions which surfaced following the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2014. By choosing a Prime Minister outside the party and appointing his son Hafedh Caid Essebsi to be head of Nidaa Tounes, the chief of State displayed a lack of confidence in his entourage which had supported and anointed him. Already in 2015 a block of 35 Nidaa Tounes MPs in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) left the Presidential party. Others would follow them. As a result of this haemorrhage in its ranks, Nidaa was no longer the largest party in the ARP, a role which fell to its adversary and ally, Ennahda.

However, Beji Caid Essebsi did not concede defeat. He had two great ambitions: consolidating his personal power and reorganising and tightening the ranks of his party. During the summer of 2018 he changed his Prime Minister, replacing the rigorous Habib Essid with forty year-old Youssef Chahed. His first task was to implement the Carthage Pact, a kind of “roadmap” listing his government’s priorities. With this pact, signed by nine political parties and three national bodies and forced on Ennahda, the President achieved a consensus of the various political forces on the basis of their participation in the political life of the country and above all on their acceptance of the rules of the game as determined by him.

But contrary to his predecessor, Youssef Chahed was going to try to assert his independence from the President by elaborating a plan to fight corruption which at first turned out to be popular. This initiative had a destabilising effect on both Beji Caid Essebsi and Rached Ghannouchi who were afraid their entourage might come under fire. While secretly harbouring the intention of getting rid of Youssef Chahed, the President tried to rally around him the advocates of modernisation who had voted massively for him in 2014 but had been disappointed. He was thus reviving the political strategy of Habib Bourguiba: modernist on societal issues but stubbornly opposed to democracy. In 2017 he rescinded a memorandum which prohibited marriage between a Muslim Tunisian woman and a non-Muslim man and revived the perennial debate over the equality of the sexes in the matter of inheritance. At the same time, he tried to reinforce his power through a violent attack on the parliamentary system, blaming it for the government’s inefficiency. He also called into question the separation of powers between the various bodies of government and advocated the return to a strong presidential regime with wide powers. To this end, he believed it was necessary to revise the constitution and limit the checks and balances.

Fratricidal Battle Inside Nidaa Tounes

The local elections of 6 May 2018 were to reveal the widespread dissatisfaction with the two major parties which had dominated the political scene since 2014. Led by that share of the civil society which still had faith in politics, independent lists made a real breakthrough, outstripping Ennahda, which lost half its 2014 electorate, and Nidaa Tounes which lost two thirds. Nidaa Tounes’s defeat at the polls touched off a fratricidal struggle inside the party. Chairman Hafedh Caid Essebsi tried to lay the blame on Premier Youssef Chahed, while the latter claimed it was the party’s political bankruptcy which was at fault: “The leaders of Nidaa headed by Hafedh Caid Essebsi have destroyed the party,” he told Tunisians on 29 May 2018 in a speech on television.

During the summer of 2018, the battle over the internal balances of Nidaa Tounes became crystallised around the issue of whether Youssef Chahed was to remain or step down. While Beji Caid Essebsi, who had never forgiven his young Prime Minister that anti-corruption campaign and more generally his determination to distance himself from the State apparatus, pretended to support his son. As for Rached Ghannouchi, he opposed Youssef Chahed’s departure. The possible alliance between the 69 Ennahda MPs and the national coalition formed around the Premier (composed mostly of Nidaa dissidents) threatened to give birth to a powerful political pole. On the strength of its relative success in the local elections, Ennahda seemed less timorous than it had been since 2014 and endowed with enough fighting spirit to stand up to the Chief of State. Youssef Chahed, who had resisted Beji Caid Essebsi’s attempt to jettison him, played the public opinion card, banking on the popularity he had earned with his war on corruption. The arrest of several heavyweights of the informal economy who were close to Hafedh Caid Essebsi lent credence to a man who had been totally unknown until his appointment as head of government in 2016.

Now Chahed is clinging to power, going so far as to put pressure on his opponents and systematically sidelining anyone who might possibly succeed him. But in his ambition to keep his job and run for president in 2019, he has run up against the powerful trade union federation, the UGTT, which is very hostile to the economic reforms announced by Youssef Chahed as recommended by Tunisia’s fund providers and especially the IMF.

Impossible Divorce Between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes

On 24 September, Beji Caid Essebsi decided to appear in a talk show on the TV channel Elhiwar Ettounsi. Questioned about the political crisis, the Chief of State declared that the departures of Youssef Chahed and his son Hafedh Caid Essebsi would make no real difference in the way things stood. He thus dismissed the conflict which seemed so central during the summer months. In his view the main issue was elsewhere since Ennahda had chosen to put an end to its alliance with Nidaa Tounes. At several moments, the Chief of State stressed the “divorce” between the two major parties, highlighting the end of the pact which had bound them together since 2013. But by announcing this “divorce,” which was not of his choosing, he defined the present crisis in terms of the traditional confrontation between modernists and Islamists.

Essebsi thus takes on again the role in politics which was his in 2011 and 2012 when he embodied the continuity of the State and its modernising inspiration. While admitting that the overall situation is far from healthy, he blamed the imbalance of a system which does not provide him with the means to exercise his authority by reconfiguring the political scene. In his view, a two-headed executive can only be counter-productive, since it will not allow the Chief of State to dismiss his Prime Minister and reorganise the political life of the country as he sees fit. The Premier, who is not elected, owes his legitimacy to a vote of confidence in the ARP. Now, at the present time, Essebsi specified, the Assembly is split, the political scene is fragmented and the Prime Minister, who comes out of Nidaa Tounes has the support of Ennahda. This disorder, he feels, must be remedied, the Constitution must be modified and the electoral law changed.

Implicitly, the Chief of State was invoking a return to the political practices of the past in order to rationalise the Tunisian political scene which has always been dominated by the conflict between modernisers and Islamists. By maintaining a minimum degree of tension with Rached Ghannouchi, Beji Caid Essebsi still hopes to win back his electorate.

This manoeuvre may well be successful. Ennahda had picked itself up after last May’s local elections, but is in jeopardy again with the investigation into the deaths of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. Their defence committee’s lawyers declared on 2 October 2018 that they had in their possession documents pointing to the existence of a secret organisation connected to Ennahda. The investigation is only in its early stages and Ennahda has rejected the accusation, but opprobrium is already piling up on the Islamist party which has no choice but to run for cover under Beji Caid Essebsi’s umbrella. It can count neither on the support of the UGTT or the army. Isolated on the domestic front, the party is also isolated on the regional and international scenes. The day after Beji Caid Essebsi’s TV talk, the Saudi and Emirati news channels harped on the divorce between “the two sheiks”.

1EDITOR’S NOTE: 11-12 October in Erevan (Armenia).

2EDITOR’S NOTE: At the 73rd UN General Assembly in New York.

3Monica Marks, « The Cost of Inclusion : Ennahda and Tunisia’s Political Transition » in Adaptation Strategies of Islamist Movements, Pomeps Studies, n° 26, April 2017.